'I do need you to come in to stay afloat': Small business owner, advocate highlight value of shopping local

As the owner of Preserve by Flora & Farmer is asking for help to stay afloat, a Manitoba small business advocate says the problem extends far beyond a single shop.

'Concerning' lack of optimism among independent businesses in lead-up to holiday season: business federation

Kimberley Bialkoski is owner of Preserve by Flora & Farmer. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

Kimberley Bialkoski is relieved she is no longer trying to put on a fake smile these days.

However, the food maker has been worried that her Winnipeg shop, which opened a year ago, won't make it to its second anniversary. She recently took to social media with an earnest post, pleading for support.

Bialkoski is the founder of a company called Flora & Farmer that specializes in jams and other preserves. Last year, she opened a physical location, Preserve by Flora & Farmer, at the corner of Portage and Maryland, behind Hildegard's Bakery.

Over the past year, Bialkoski has had unexpected bills, equipment breaking down and a lack of foot traffic into the shop.

"Just having to always put on a happy face when things hadn't been going as well as I had hoped or anticipated or needed was really hard for me," she said.

"If you don't ask for what you need you might never get it. Everybody had thought that I was doing awesome here. But there's been a real challenge with finding ways to get people to come to the shop," she said.

"I thought that putting it out there that I do need you to come in to stay afloat is a really, really important thing. And … I didn't have anything to lose at this point."

Jonathan Alward, a Manitoba director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said Bialkoski isn't alone.

He says the small business advocacy organization has noted a drop in optimism among Manitoba businesses over the last month, at a time when businesses typically expect to thrive because of Black Friday sales and the lead-up to the holidays.

In its November business barometer, the federation found 59.8 per cent of independent Manitoba businesses said they were optimistic about the coming year — a 3.7 per cent drop from the province's previous optimism index.

Manitoba wasn't unique — businesses in every province except Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Quebec reported a drop in optimism, according to the federation's November results.

Some of of the items on sale at Preserve by Flora & Farmer. 'Every company here is made in Manitoba,' says Bialkoski. Because of that, when Manitobans shop at the store, 'all your money is staying in your community and in your province.' (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

Those findings are based on 822 responses to a controlled access web survey, collected from Nov. 4 to 18 from a random sample of CFIB members. The findings are statistically accurate to +/- 3.4 per cent 19 times in 20.

Although Alward said Manitoba is still ahead of the national average — with 58.93 per cent of businesses expressing optimism about the coming 12 months — Alward said he thinks the shift marks part of a worrisome trend.

"This is really a make-or-break season for many retailers," said Alward. "I think it's very concerning."

He said factors like "showrooming" — where customers go to a store to get advice or test products before buying them from another retailer online — have taken a toll on small businesses.

"It's a significant problem," he said.

Benefits to buying local: advocate

Alward said the federation is also trying to educate consumers on the benefits of shopping local.

"You're supporting businesses who are paying taxes here in Manitoba. They're paying for our health, our education, our road infrastructure," he said.

"I think it's really important, especially this time of year, that we think [of] small business, go out and support our local community, increase our foot traffic and really try and support those who are supporting us in so many ways."

Preserve by Flora and Farmer opened one year ago. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

It's a lesson Bialkoski is also hoping to instill in her customers.

A few weeks ago, Flora & Farmer was at the annual Third & Bird Market. Bialkoski said she heard from dozens of people who said they knew about the shop, and had been intending to stop in but hadn't done so yet.

Now that she's asked for help online, Bialkoski said she's receiving more orders and seeing more people come in.

She's hoping that will help her recoup the money she's invested in her business, including the commercial kitchen at the back of the shop. Through a window in the store, visitors can see some of the store's products being made.

The kitchen was a costly, but necessary, investment, Bialkoski says. Given the time needed to make the preserves, it would have been more expensive to rent the preparation space.

"Building my commercial kitchen was the same amount as buying a house. With a house, you have a 30-year mortgage. With a business loan, you have five years to pay it back," she said.

Bialkoski specializes in making preserves through Flora & Farmer. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

Aside from her company's own products, Preserve by Flora & Farmer also carries food and gift items from other local businesses.

"Every company here is made in Manitoba. So, because of that all your money is staying in your community and in your province," she said.

She hopes people will support that kind of local enterprise. And she says she's had positive response to her social media post — unusual though it may be for a business to admit to its challenges.

"Big business tells you to never do this type of thing — never show that you struggle. But small businesses can't operate by the same rules as big businesses, you know — we are real people," she said.

"So why not show those faces and show that there's a real human emotion behind it?"

Preserve by Flora & Farmer is celebrating its first anniversary on Dec. 7 with a customer appreciation event.

With files from Caitlyn Gowriluk


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